Nick sniffed the cold air that had started to settle in and around Chesterville, New York, his quaint, upstate hometown located in the Catskill Mountains. Halloween was one day away, a Friday this year. Nick looked forward to the holiday, one of his favorites, next to Christmas, of course. However, today he had something he enjoyed even better: a great mystery.
Nick flipped through the final pages of yet another mystery novel that fed his mind with exciting characters and great plots. As he sat in bed with his new favorite book held in his sweaty palms, the earth could have exploded into smithereens, his house pulled from its foundation by a tornado—it didn't matter what catastrophe might occur at this moment; Nick found himself fully immersed in the final chapter with his favorite characters.
He loved stories about missing people, crazed or degenerate criminals intent on doing their victims harm, or a detective two clues away from capturing his suspects.
Although he was only twelve, Nick had already completed a good number of mystery novels in his short life. He kept his own personal collection in a large cardboard box on a shelf in his closet, safe above wooden hangers holding football jerseys, dyed T-shirts, and ripped blue jeans, and he was about to add this latest mystery to his library. Just a few pages to go and he would know what these characters were up to … until he heard a voice from downstairs.
"Nicky, time for dinner! I'm not going to call you again," his mother yelled up the stairs, apparently for the second time. Yes, nothing interrupted his concentration when he neared the end of a good mystery book—except his mom, with her threatening voice.
Nick's mother was not unlike other mothers in the neighborhood. He had some friends whose moms were the same when it came to gathering their families for dinner, but tonight was not the night. He wanted to finish the final pages before stepping back into reality.
"I'll be down in a minute, Ma!" Nick screamed back, but his eyes still focused on the book. Sure, he knew he'd be in trouble if he didn't heed her call. Dad would eventually come upstairs and yell at him for not showing up at the table on time. So he bookmarked the page, took a quick peek at himself in the mirror on his way out of his room, admired the short blond hair, blue eyes, and thin physique—still looking good, guy—then quickly ran downstairs to join his family.
As Nick walked into the dining room, he saw Samantha, his younger sister, still ten but going on sixteen, already seated at the table with a generous portion of meat and potatoes
falling over the edge of her plate. Her dark hair, pulled up into pigtails, bobbed as she inhaled the aromas. And, coming out from the kitchen with freshly baked dinner rolls, was Mom.
"Sit down, Nicky," Mom said, passing him by while the smell from those warm rolls filled his nostrils and made his mouth water.
As Nick suspected, Mom, adorned in a silk blouse, yellow skirt, and high heels, was dressed as if she'd just stepped out of one of those beauty magazines scattered about the house. However, he focused on those dinner rolls she'd placed on the table. He had to have one. As he went to grab a roll, Samantha's annoying voice short-circuited his growing appetite to savor the warm goodness.
"Glad you could make it, snot-face," she said, smiling at Nick.
There she was, in all her glory, his pigtailed brat of a sister.
Nick's appetite suddenly disappeared. He stared at Samantha, who continued to smile, and wondered how … how he could make his sister's life miserable at that very moment.
"That's it, sis. Fill up on all that food you got there on your plate so you can keep getting nice and fat, because—"
"Ma!" Samantha yelled.
"Knock it off, Nicholas. Leave your sister alone and let her eat," Mom said.
Of course, Samantha screaming was always his fault. Whether or not his sister was wrong didn't matter; it seemed that he'd be the guilty one. In fact, Nick knew that even if she stood on the dinner table and kicked the plates full of food to the floor, with his parents witnessing the whole event, he'd still be the guilty one, accused of making her do it.
"Yeah, okay … I know it's my fault. Even though she called me snot-face, I'm the one who's guilty." Nick gestured, using his hands to show his frustration. "Whatever."
Nick watched his father come in while he argued.
"I don't care much who's at fault; what I want is for everyone to stifle it and eat your food … understood?" He sat down at the head of the table.
"Ma, have a seat and join us." He looked to his left. "Nick and Samantha, not another word out of you two, or you're both grounded."
That's what Nick wanted to hear—fairness. His dad was harsh when it came to disciplinary things, but he also was fair. Nick could reason with him on occasion, and he liked that.
"Oh, by the way," his father said, looking confused, "I was coming in from the rain and noticed the jack-o'-lantern on the steps out front is missing. Anybody know where it went?"
He knew his dad wanted an answer from him, by the stare he sent deep into Nick's eyes. The Stare of Death!
Nick felt singled out again. Sure, Dad, blame it on me. Score another win for Sam.
Nick heard the drops of water as they exploded on the roof. Loud tapping sounded against the windows from the windswept rain. Halloween is tomorrow. Maybe one of the local punks in the neighborhood took it to use as a flying projectile. I don’t know.
Nick figured that since eggs were hard to come by on Halloween, especially for kids his age, it had to be a teenager who'd stolen their pumpkin to toss around instead. That would make a nice mess on some unsuspecting neighbor's driveway.
Then it hit him. Here was his chance to find out who may have taken the carved-out pumpkin and, just maybe, assist in the apprehension of the punk. After eating most of his dinner, Nick excused himself from the table and ran up to his room to gather a few items.
He shut his door, surprised his parents didn't question his early departure from their nightly dinner ritual. Not even an evil eye glanced his way from his mom. That had certainly made him feel better. No need to get on Mom's bad side.
There was another good reason to venture out and start his investigation: to be far away from his sister.
She was trouble.
Besides, there was a mystery to solve, the case of the missing pumpkin, and he figured he'd start by checking to see if any of his neighbors were missing their pumpkins.
The new mystery reminded him of the stories he'd heard among his classmates: the urban legend of the Pumpkin Thief. He'd cut out an article about this legend from the school's newsletter a few years ago, when he'd first heard the story, intrigued by the creepiness of it all.
Nick wanted to read the article again. He went to his desk and rummaged through his stack of papers until he located the piece of tattered print, written by some kid, a Jeffery Beamer, in the Journalism Club. He'd certainly done his research on the urban legend. Nick re-read the whole thing while standing.
"Legend of the Pumpkin Thief, by Jeffery Beamer.
"One thing that truly amazes me is urban legends. I've heard a few good ones over the years, some from watching TV, others from Googling urban legends. So when some of my older friends in school shared with me the Pumpkin Thief legend, I just had to do a little bit of research. And this is what I found.
" Legend has it that around Halloween, this evil creature, the Pumpkin Thief—a tall, green-bean-thin figure in a black suit and large, orange tie, with a massive orange pumpkin for a head and carved-out eyes, nose, and jagged mouth—would sneak into a town of his choosing and snatch up the pumpkins at night. He'd collect as many as he could hold, then he'd carry them away to a secret location.
"Why did he snatch up all the pumpkins? Well, my dear readers, folklore said it had to do with him trying to stop the townsfolk from using them to ward off evil spirits. You see, without the pumpkins to protect their homes, they were prey to all the ghosts, ghouls, and goblins that float around on Halloween, having fun on the one night when they get to celebrate all things horror. They run amok and frighten trick-or-treaters. It's their night, and the Pumpkin Thief does what he can to allow them to have fun on this special night.
"Now, although the urban legend has been discredited, I was able to retrieve some stories from people who said they have evidence that he is indeed real.
"It appears that a few local towns had confirmed that this Pumpkin Thief visited them. They had their pumpkins stolen, and on Halloween night, weird things happened to a few of the townsfolk. Some said they saw ghosts peering into their homes through the windows. One person claimed that floating chased about his bedroom Another said his doorbell kept ringing, but no one was there. I even found a few photos from a nearby town that showed strange, large, orb-type lights floating above their homes on Halloween night.
Of course, experts discredited these allegations. It seems no one had concrete evidence of a Pumpkin Thief caught red-handed grabbing pumpkins; nonetheless, the legend continues. Which town will be next?
Nick stopped reading. He had enough to go on. One missing pumpkin certainly did not qualify as a visit from the Pumpkin Thief. But it was kind of cool, getting all worked up the night before the holiday, a special holiday devoted to celebrating evil and dead things. And the article intrigued him. Maybe I should look into this some more, find out who else might have been visited by this legend since Jeffery wrote the article. I need to track down this kid. I'm sure he's got more to tell.
He replaced the article on the pile of papers and went to pack his jacket pockets with all the detective tools he'd need for tonight: a flashlight, cell phone, and a small pair of binoculars. Those were all he had, so far. He'd ordered some other items out of one of his detective comic books, but they hadn't shipped yet. He loved all the detective gadgetry!
He knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. He wanted to be a detective with the police department. He wasn’t sure how to get there, but between his parents, teachers, and those guidance counselors they had in the big high school he’d be eventually attending, he’d find his way. Once he had the title of detective, and access to all that high-tech gadgetry he'd seen on his favorite TV shows, he'd be happier than an ant in a picnic basket.
And now that his family's pumpkin had gone missing, most likely stolen, he’d been given the perfect opportunity for an early taste of detective work. Just the thought of it excited him as he began preparations for tonight's quick investigation.
Nick sat on his bed for a moment longer, still imagining how, one day, he'd succeed at what he wanted to do. Detective work. The girl. The cars. The life.
Nick had to stop thinking so much about the future and instead concentrate on solving the mystery afoot. He already had an idea about who may have put their grubby hands on his pumpkin. Lou, the bully of his neighborhood! He stood and walked out of his room, closing the door behind him, then to the top of the stairs. But when he approached the top step, he saw his evil little sibling with the pigtails at the bottom, looking straight up at him.
Samantha put both hands on her hips and smiled. "Where are you going? I'm telling."
"You've got to be kidding me, Sam. What is your problem? You're ten, but sometimes you act like a spoiled baby. Do you really hate me that much?"
Nick hoped a little guilt would soften his sister up, and possibly keep her from saying anything to their parents. She seemed to have a relentless desire to make his life a living mess.
"You're playing stupid detective again, right?" She smiled, her arms folded. "Well, you're going to need me if you want to solve a mystery because I know how to be a real detective." She continued to smile while blocking Nick's exit.
He knew her motive. She wanted to follow her big brother through a night of detective work, a complete gathering of clues, and hopefully witness a crime get solved through the quick actions of her detective brother.
He also figured she'd tell all her friends that her older brother could solve any crime that dared to enter her neighborhood. He could see it in her eyes. "Yeah, sure. Get your coat and let's go. It's getting dark out."
Nick wasn't the least bit happy about having to drag Samantha along, but he didn't want her telling her friends and their parents any lies about his motives. Besides, she might be able to help keep an eye on things.
Nick and Samantha left the house together, first telling his parents he was taking his sister across the street to his friend's house. He knew they would've noticed Samantha missing, with her always under their feet.
As they crossed the street, Nick took out his flashlight. He directed its yellow beam to his neighbors’ stoops and porches in search of pumpkins. He pointed the light at each home, every porch that may have displayed a pumpkin, as he walked farther down his street, Samantha by his side.
He was having trouble getting a clear view. Although the rain had stopped, a misty fog had taken over, reflecting the beam of his flashlight back into his eyes. That made it difficult for him to check for pumpkins, even with some porch lights on. But as far as he could tell, none of the houses had any pumpkins on their porches, either. That bothered him.
Eventually he made it to the last house on the left, the home of Mrs. Needlewhitter, an eighty-seven-year-old widow who hated children. Nick knew she was a mean old lady, and he usually did his best to steer clear of her. Tonight was different. He needed to check her porch, just like he'd checked the others.
Nick slowly approached the gate, then jumped back in sheer fright, pulling his sister to the ground with him. Baxter, the old lady's German Shepherd, slammed up against the fence, barking, snarling, and showing off his white canines.
Samantha cried and screamed, "I want to go home!"
Her loud voice made the dog bark even more.
"Come on, sis, let's go. He can't hurt you. He's behind the fence," Nick said, lifting her up off the wet grass that left a fresh, green stain on the knees of her white pants. He shined his flashlight on Mrs. Needlewhitter's porch, noticing a few smashed pumpkins by her bottom stoop.
Could that be it? Had he found the culprit? An eighty-seven-year-old, half-crippled, almost blind, gray-haired … pumpkin thief?
Baxter stood on his hind legs, his massive front paws hanging over the top of the gate, snarling and barking at Nick as he came closer for a better look. He shined his flashlight in Baxter's eyes, turning them red as blood, reminding him of a movie he'd seen last week on the Chiller Channel about this dog gone bad, evil incarnate, determined to do harm to those who'd messed with him while he was still a pup.
Nick shook this thought from his head and, instead, focused his attention on the front porch.
The porch light turned on.
"What's going on out there, Baxter boy? You see trespassers, is that it?" Mrs. Needlewhitter yelled through the screen door. "Get 'em, boy. Rip ’em to shreds. Dirty rat punks."
Nick couldn't understand why she said what she did, but he wasn't waiting around to find out what would happen next. He grabbed hold of his sister and ran across the street, not looking back as they sprinted home. He still heard the old lady's dog, barking in the distance.
When they reached their house, Nick walked his sister up the front porch steps, and then opened the door. He gave his tearful sister a nudge inside. "Go, and don't say a word to Mom or Dad, you hear?"
She didn't look back or reply as she walked indoors.
He quickly shut the door, then sat down on his front steps to think of what he needed to do next. He'd found a few broken and smashed pumpkins, and Mrs. Needlewhitter might just be the pumpkin culprit, but why?
How could she manage to sneak around and grab all those pumpkins? Or could this be the work of Lou, the bully? Or worse. Has the Pumpkin Thief chosen this town for this Halloween? My town? Now Nick had even more reason to find this Jeffery Beamer.
In the interim, Nick knew he had to gather some evidence, so he thought up a plan, a great plan on how he'd get closer to those pumpkins scattered about Mrs. Needlewhitter’s yard. This was going to be his first real detective work, and he knew deep inside that he was so ready to accomplish the task.